The Fairbanks woman who died after being buried in an avalanche over the weekend in Southcentral Alaska was an athlete, downhill skier and avid outdoorswoman who was heli-skiing with her sister.
The trip to the Matanuska Glacier was another adventure for Erin Lee, 40, who grew up in Fairbanks.
Lee was one of four children of Patrice and Guy Lee. Nichole Tham, of Anchorage, her sister, did not get caught in the avalanche and was not physically hurt, according to a family friend.
Lee and Tham were on a guided trip with others on Saturday. A ski guide took the first run, and Lee reportedly followed. She was having trouble with one of her skis and had reportedly stopped to fix it. When she proceeded, the snow shifted in an unexpected direction. She was buried for an estimated 10 minutes, received medical care on the scene and was rushed to Mat-Su Regional Hospital via helicopter by the heli-skiing company, according to Alaska State Troopers and loved ones who were interviewed.
Troopers did not respond to the backcountry scene.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a whole ton of information about the size of the avalanche,” trooper spokesman Austin McDaniel said.
Lee graduated from Lathrop High School in 1999, earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and made her mark as a social worker helping children. She adopted shelter dogs and enjoyed fly fishing with her father. For more than 10 years, she moonlighted as a bartender at the Midnite Mine where friends say she was known to look out for others.
“I know it sounds so cliche, but she was the most compassionate person I knew,” said Lisa Hay, a counselor who met Lee as a colleague and came to consider her a friend. Through work, they had weekly contact for about 15 years.
Lee was a long-time social worker for the state of Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services and more recently for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
“I can’t even estimate how many lives that she touched,” Hay said.
Lee had unique skills to de-escalate difficult situations and earn the trust of everyone involved, Hay said.
“Erin was like an anchor for people whose lives were unstable or chaotic or scary,” Hay said. “She went above and beyond what was expected of her to try and improve other people’s lives.”
Patrice Lee described her daughter’s death as a freak accident.
“She was very outdoorsy. She started skiing at a very early age. She was a very competent skier,” she said.
As a child, Erin sold soda at the annual Golden Days Parade in Fairbanks and later got a job waiting tables and managed to save $20,000 while she was still in high school, her mother said. She was also a highly competitive soccer player and practiced martial arts.
Lee said her daughter “suffered with what she knew and saw” as a social worker.
“I think she always felt that if there is injustice, someone had to do something about it,” Patrice Lee said.
Friends have set up a GoFundMe campaign, the Erin Kehaulani Lee Youth Survivor Fund, hoping to raise $20,000 to provide grants to child abuse survivors aged 16-21 in Lee's memory.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.